Behold all that are asleep, awake and rise to sing praise…
(From Psalm 148, Midnight Prayer liturgy, Syriac Orthodox Church)
Could we have seen it coming?
Was our slumber too deep?
Midnight’s for sleeping, yet You do not sleep,
nor did You sleep
as boundaries changed and names were rearranged.
You did not sleep as serpents hatched their eggs.
As feet kicked against the goads, awake, You rose.
Do You sleep?
We lie now as wide-eyed at midnight as at midday,
yet every praise that You ordain spells death to faithful lips.
And waken us to see the grace
that lies here with us,
Your garments glisten, my brethren, as snow;—and fair is your shining in the likeness of Angels.
(St Ephraim the Syrian, “Hymn for the Baptised”)
You are the light of the world;
you are the body of Life.
The persecutor kicked you;
you kick within yourself,
yet you remain – kept, preserved;
you cannot be hidden.
You are the beaten body.
Yet the body shines more for being broken;
more like the Head with every thorn,
you live because your foes assault you.
Hold up the Body by the crown
and it will radiate before all men.
Glisten with water, with blood,
Child of God.
Your cradle is pillaged;
the persecutor walks your roads again.
Over seas, the body binds itself,
strikes and licks its wounds,
kicks its own goads.
Yet you are the child.
Glisten and radiate –
let the earth see and know.
Your roads stood firm beneath the Zealot’s feet;
your foes became your brothers. Shine:
though the cradle may fall, the life remains.
It is a wild and rainy day in Melbourne as I sit down to write this first post, God willing, of a new series – and the rain is fitting, because my poem for today takes inspiration from a hymn by 4th century poet and theologian, St Ephraim the Syrian, a prayer focused on the story of Noah.
O God of mercies Who didst refresh Noah, he too refreshed Thy mercies. He offered sacrifice and stayed the flood; he presented gifts and received the promise. With prayer and incense he propitiated Thee: with an oath and with the bow Thou wast gracious to him; so that if the flood should essay to hurt the earth, the bow should stretch itself over against it, to banish it away and hearten the earth. As Thou hast sworn peace so do Thou maintain it, and let Thy bow strive against Thy wrath!
Wrath is not a concept that our world likes to hear about, but in the context of Syria as it stands today the words seem to have a powerful immediacy. We can easily imagine Syrian believers today joining the congregation of Ephraim’s day responding to the priest with:
Stretch forth Thy bow against the flood, for lo! it has lifted up its waves against our walls!
As communities of Christian believers who have stood strong in Syria for nearly 2000 years leave their homes, possibly never to return, we need to stand with them in this prayer: a prayer for a land sorely besieged by the floods around it, desperately in need of our prayers and our solidarity with them.
In aid of this, and inspired by Johnnie Moore‘s call for the Western church to tell the stories of our Syrian brothers and sisters, I have decided to put together a series of poems structured around the ancient Syriac Orthodox daily prayers and the hymns of St Ephraim: an attempt to unearth some of the rich beauty of Syria’s Christian history, to remind us what is threatened, and what a powerful contribution the Syrian church has made to the Christian world.
So here is my first offering. I hope it might be a blessing to you as you read it today.
Damascus Road Prayers: Prologue
the bow is in the sky, but the floods fall still.
Our walls have stood, but now they totter.
The olive branches are wilting;
no doves fly here any more.
Noah turned away wrath with his prayer, with his sacrifice.